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8:27PM

Gruden after the 0-2 start: ‘No regrets’

  ALAMEDA, Calif.—This is what Jon Gruden wanted. Well, not exactly. He didn’t want to lose the first two games on his return to coaching. He didn’t want to feel forced to trade away probably his best player, Khalil Mack. He wanted to be in charge of an NFL team once more, and so he is, with all the problems that brings.

  Even Monday, another day after, another day to get peppered with the questions he used to ask—or at least hint at—Gruden indicated there were no regrets.

  Coaches coach. Maybe John Madden secure in his well-earned reputation, not to mention the East Bay real estate holdings, was able to resist the call. But Dick Vermeil, Joe Gibbs and one of Gruden’s recent ESPN colleagues, Herman Edwards, stepped away from microphones and back into the line of fire.

   Gruden was not naïve. He knew the drill. He knew the misfortunes. He knew he was a star on Monday nights with a salary equal to his status. But deep down he was and is a football coach, and that can bring as much pain as satisfaction.

   A game the Oakland Raiders never trailed. Until the final 10 seconds. Until the only time that mattered. A game the Raiders lost on field goal, 20-19, because the Denver Broncos were able to move the ball from their own 20 to the Oakland 18 in a minute 48 seconds, allowing that 36-yard kick in the gut—uh, over the crossbar by Brandon McManus.

  A game that perfectly set up questions about the defensive line and the lack of Mack, who might have made a difference on that drive. Might. Gruden knew that was coming. He understands the game and the business.

   “I think we said after the game,” Gruden said to a packed media room at Raiders HQ, “we got to make improvements there. Across the board we got to make improvements.”

  But he doesn’t have to second-guess himself, at least in a public forum, with cameras and microphones and oh so many digital recorders and note pads.

  “No,” he answered about sending Mack away. “It doesn’t make me regret. We made the trade. We made the trade.”

  Not so nice had had to say it twice, but he did.

  “There has got to be hindsight. 50-50, all that stuff.”

  To be sure without Mack, the pass rusher, the All-Pro, there was no stuff, the type that stops an offense where he tried to start.

  “I would have loved to have had him,” said Gruden, quite forthright. “And I’m not going to keep rehashing this. I would have loved to have coached him, loved to have had him here. But he’s not here. Somebody’s got to step up.

  “We got to keep building our football team, and that’s what we’re going to do. Hopefully, we see more from Arden Key, we see more from P.J. Hall when he gets healthy. Hopefully we prove that in the long term we did the right thing.” 

  Players win games. Derek Carr, criticized obliquely the previous game, against the Rams, for not being decisive, nearly won this one, setting a team completion percentage record. Amari Cooper, 10 receptions for 116 yards, nearly won this one. Marshawn Lynch, 65 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, nearly won this one.

  It’s hard to know whether Mack could have won this one, but the future draft picks the Raiders acquired didn’t do a thing. Indeed, that’s a gratuitous comment. The Raiders are what they are, which is an NFL team on the verge—of what no one can say, including the head coach.

  Gruden was asked what he saw from the first two games--two losing games, one of them well played, that made him think the Raiders still could be a contender—although truth tell he never even implied that, much less said it directly.

   “I’m not going to sit here and make predictions here today,” he said, sitting there. “I’m not going to do it. We’re going to keep building our football team. Whether that translates into one win or four wins or any wins . . . I’m not going to make any predictions about anything other than we’re going to play hard and provide the best effort we can.”

 As he departed, Gruden walked through the door and into one more question. Did he wish he hadn’t left ESPN for what surrounded him?

  “Not at all,” Gruden said. You sensed he very much meant it, and the heck with Khalil Mack.

8:40PM

Gruden and Raiders: Can he go home again?

ALAMEDA Calif.—You’re a Raiders fan—an Oakland Raiders fan—and you wonder what they’re going to do to you next? Your loyalty goes unrewarded. Your frustration is ignored.

  The new coach, who used to be the old coach, said he came back because he had something to prove. Where’s he going to prove it, in Las Vegas?

  The team isn’t very good, which can’t be blamed on the coach—except he was involved in trading the team’s best player, Khalil Mack, for draft picks,  some of whom, it the timetable holds, will not be on team until it’s no longer in Oakland,.

  The coach ought to know about giving up people who matter for potential. draftees. Nearly 20 years ago he was the guy who mattered, the coach of a Raiders team that was in the playoffs, that in a couple seasons would win a Super Bowl. But Jon Gruden had been swapped for draft picks who never did very much.

  When Gruden arrived the first time, 1998, he was 35 and loving it. He cracked jokes, taunted the writers. He worked for Al Davis, yes, nerve-wracking. Still it was his first NFL head coaching assignment. This was what he always wanted, so how could he not handle everything with a smile?

  Now he is 55. And famous, more so as commentator for ESPN—hey aren’t you the guy we saw on TV?—than for his coaching background. The Raiders were pounded by the Rams, 33-13, Monday, Gruden’s return game, and Tuesday Gruden was confronted by the media, for a second time in maybe 14 hours. There weren’t a lot of laughs.

  Mack wouldn’t have made the Raiders a winner, although he would have made them more competitive. Defense wins. Everyone in football knows that. You don’t get rid of a once-in-a-decade pass rusher.

  You know the line. It was given to Thomas Wolfe by an English writer, Ella Winter, and he was so enamored Wolfe used it as the title of his last novel,”You Can’t Go Home Again.”  You can walk in the door of the old house years later, but nothing is quite same. Different viewpoints, different situations.

  After he left as head coach of the 49ers, winning three Super Bowls, Bill Walsh returned to Stanford, where he had earned his reputation. But it didn’t quite work. He didn’t have the same enthusiasm and the student-athletes, as the label goes, were not the way he remembered. Society changes. Sports changes.

  Gruden knows the game.  He was less a commentator than an instructor and critic on those “John Gruden Quarterback Camp” segments, one of which dealt with a kid named Derek Carr, who the second half Monday night played less than favorably, throwing interceptions,

  Still, it you’re always behind because the other team (i.e., Rams) is sharp on offense and you’re less than sharp on defense—or offense—the quarterback, in this case, Carr, is going to be heaving balls in desperation.

‘There were a few plays when unchacteristically (Carr) wasn’t at his best,” said Gruden. No quips. No double-entendre. No TV commentary. Just a cold, hard serious observation.

  “Sometimes,” Gruden pointed out correctly, “you have to credit (Rams defensive coordinator) Wade Phillips.” As if Phillips didn’t receive all the credit possible as defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos when they stiffed Carolina in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium.

  “They gave us multiple looks out there,” said Gruden of the Rams defense. “They have some talented people out there. It’s just disappointing. But I think knowing how good Derek is it can all be solved.”

  Is that coach talking or the TV announcer?

  Gruden knows his stuff. He also knows what his team lacks—a top pass rusher, like Khalil Mack. Funny you should mention that.

  One thing that hasn’t changed in the 10 years since he left coaching and the 20 years or so since he first game with the Raiders is that defeat remains painful.

  “It stinks,” he said candidly, “Losses all feel painful. Especially Monday night losses when you have to get up and get ready for a team like Denver.”

   What do you think it is for Raider fans who have to get ready for losing their team in Oakland?

7:04AM

Raiders: A brawl, a rain storm, a victory

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — Where did Ken Norton watch the game? We know that for the first time in three seasons it wasn’t from the Raiders sidelines. We also know that the Raider defense, the one under the direction of Norton until early last week, on Sunday finally recorded its first interception of the season — in the 11th game — and Oakland played its best defense in a while.

How much did that have to do with head coach Jack Del Rio dumping Norton as defensive coordinator and replacing him with John Pagano? How much did that have to do with facing the quarterback-challenged Denver Broncos?

Maybe some of both. Maybe none of either. After all, the talk was that Del Rio really makes the calls on defense.

He or Pagano made the right ones on a rainy Sunday at the Coliseum. At least until the fourth quarter. It was Oakland’s game from the start, and then, whew, after a great call and maneuver on a third-and-eight from the Raider 15 with two and half minutes to go, Derek Carr to Cordarrelle Patterson for 54 yards, it was Oakland’s game at the end, 21-14.

It wasn’t the Patriots the Raiders were playing. Or the Redskins. Or even the Colts, teams that had beaten Oakland. But the victory cannot be dismissed. Especially with Kansas City losing again — five of the last six — and leaving the Raiders at 5-6, only one game behind the 6-5 Chiefs.

The teams play in two weekends at K.C., where Oakland never wins. Still, with the New York Giants coming to the Coliseum on Sunday, and even the 49ers beat the Giants, the Raiders would appear in better position for the playoffs than a few days back.

“Nice to be able to deliver,” said Del Rio, “and come out with a hard-fought victory.”

And he didn’t mean the near-brawl that began some three minutes into the game, when Oakland receiver Michael Crabtree, carrying a year’s grudge, went after Denver cornerback Aqib Talib, apparently because last season Talib grabbed a chain hanging from Crabtree’s neck.

Before anyone knew it, they and numerous others were punching and grabbing along the Broncos’ sideline. When the battling finally stopped, Crabtree, Talib and Oakland guard Gabe Jackson had been ejected. “We can’t afford to lose one of our top receivers and then our starting guard," said Del Rio. “I like to count on my guys to do the right thing.”

Which their teammates did on the field, on defense, Denver gaining only 51 yards its first 10 offensive plays, and on offense, the Raiders totaling 348 yards, 67 of those on 26 carries by the guy nicknamed Beast Mode, the local, Marshawn Lynch — who also caught three passes for 44 yards.

“We wanted to possess the ball,” Del Rio said — which definitely they managed to do, keeping it almost 36 minutes of the total 60.

“We wanted to run the ball,” he said. “I think I made a statement earlier in the week that Marshawn coming back from the one-game suspension, I feel like he’s come back with more purpose, resolve, whatever it might be. He’s come back operating in a way that’s good for us. Very decisive and very purposeful about his running and approach.”

You’d never find out as much from the subject himself. Lynch rarely talks.  

Crabtree was tossed, and Oakland’s other key receiver, Amari Cooper, was leveled in the second quarter by Darien Stewart on what was called unnecessary roughness. Cooper left with what was believed to be a concussion.

“It was a vicious hit,” Del Rio insisted. “The kind we’re trying to remove from the game. Those are the kinds of impact hits that don’t need to be part of the game. The guy is clearly defenseless and got targeted right in the head.”

The Raiders will learn more about Cooper‘s recovery and about Crabtree’s penalty as the days go. What they already learned was that, when needed, they can perform.

“We had all three phases contribute,” said Del Rio. “When you’re dropping four punts inside the 10 like we did tonight, that’s a good thing for field position. Offensively, when you‘re able to rush 37 times, that means we were possessing the ball.”

He neglected specifically to point out passing, quarterback Derek Carr going 18 of 24 for 253 yards and two touchdowns.

“I thought there was a certainty, decisiveness. Play fast. Play very fast.”

And, of course, win.

8:57PM

Are Warriors bigger than 49ers, Raiders?

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — This always was NFL territory. The 49ers were an original, created in 1946, the first major league team in the Bay Area, home grown, home owned.

The Raiders also began here, in 1960, and they put Oakland on the map and in the minds of a sporting public back east that previously didn’t know Jack London from Jack Spratt. If you lived in Oakland, or San Leandro, you no longer had to explain, “Near San Francisco.”

The Niners reinforced their standing as the region’s team of choice with five Super Bowl wins. The Raiders became as notorious as they were successful, and suddenly black became the color of choice.

So popular was football you’d see kids throwing and catching one in the parking lots before baseball games of the Giants and Athletics.

Has there been a shift in preference? When asked to rank the teams in order of importance, the decision was Niners first, Giants next, Raiders third, Warriors fourth, Athletics fifth and solely because hockey, as exciting as it might be, didn’t have the weather or conditions required, the Sharks sixth.

But now I wonder. Yes, the Niners finally won a road game Sunday, beating the Bears in Chicago, 26-20, thus keeping the Faithful faithful. And here in Oakland, after a morning rain, the Raiders drew 55,010 fans to O.co Coliseum, where, unfortunately, the team showed with a 34-20 loss to Kansas City that it’s not as good as hoped. 

Indeed, football is big. But bigger than the Warriors, the sports story of the late fall in Northern Cal — or maybe everywhere? With their remarkable season-opening win streak, now up to an NBA record 22, after they beat the Brooklyn Nets, 114-98, Sunday? With their wonderful talent named Steph Curry who, with apologies to Tom Brady or Cam Newton, may be the single most exciting athlete in the land, and unquestionably is the most exciting around here?

Yes, I was at O.Co Coliseum for the Raiders. I also watched the Niners, and I contended that despite the problems with Jed York, with Colin Kaepernick, with the departure of Jim Harbaugh, they still are worthy of the main headline. It was a losing debate. “You’re wrong,” said the Chronicle’s Ann Killion. “The Warriors are the team.”

Raider Nation still is very much with us. The Black Hole remains (although after Sunday‘s loss it’s as blue as the color of the Warriors’ road uniforms). Niner fans cling to the memories of Montana, Young, Rice and Lott, believing the past is prelude to the future. TV ratings for both 49ers and Raiders are solid. And yet...

The football teams are mediocre at best. The win over Chicago put the Niners at 4-8. The loss to the Chiefs — “The game got away from us,” said Oakland coach Jack Del Rio — left the Raiders at 5-7. Neither is going to the playoffs.

But, ah, the Warriors, perfection, 22-0. Never been done before. Ever. Historic. Fantastic. The defending NBA champions very well could win a second straight championship. The team of Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Milpitas and Marin. The Warriors resonate. But how much?

Basketball, like baseball and hockey, suffers from a multiplicity of games. Right now, certainly, each Warriors game has a place of its own, as anxious fans wonder if the next one will be the one they finally, inevitably lose. This is rare. This is wonderful. This is keeping us attentive.

This is transforming one of 82 into one of a kind, similar to what happens in the NFL. Each game has a special significance. The Raiders came into Sunday at 5-6, the Chiefs 6-5. A Raider victory would have changed the season for each team. We buy into that “Any given Sunday” idea because, yes, any given Sunday, or Monday or Thursday, does have an effect on a team, on a season.

So you heard Del Rio, after the Raiders squandered their lead by allowing KC three touchdowns on a combination of Derek Carr interceptions and long returns, say, “Tough way to finish. Promising afternoon. It just got away from us.”

He meant the game. We could also interpret it to mean the season. “The last four drives,” sighed Del Rio, “were three turnovers and a missed field goal.”

Those descriptions also apply in basketball. The missed field goals and turnovers by the Warriors didn’t hurt them. For the opening five weeks and 22 games of the 2015-16 season, nothing has hurt them.

They have become the darlings of pro basketball, the darlings of the Bay Area. But are they bigger than the 49ers or Raiders? Easier to say how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

9:24AM

S.F. Examiner: Carson Raiders lack rhyme, reason

By Art Spander
San Francisco Examiner

LOS ANGELES — The Raiders are not here. At least I could not find them. Neither are the Chargers. Nor the Rams. Nor a new stadium. What they have here, in the suburbs of Inglewood and Carson, is a battle to get an NFL franchise and a lot of talk about spending millions of dollars for a team which never might arrive.

They’re already planning for a Super Bowl. Not involving a local team, since one doesn’t exist, but a local stadium, although that doesn’t exist, either. They’ll have one, we’re told, but don’t book your seats yet. Don’t do anything until all an earthmover moves earth some place.

Read the full story here.

© 2015 The San Francisco Examiner